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School Shootings: Causes and Warning Signs

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2374 words Published: 17th Aug 2018

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  • Andrew Kimsey

This paper explores the issues of school shootings. This paper will look at the possible reasons why the shootings occur and the warning signs displayed by the shooters. The paper also covers the media’s involvement in school shootings, and the preventive measures that have been put in place to help combat this problem.

The Virginia Tech Massacre, the Sandy Hook shooting, and the Columbine High School Massacre are events that people will never forget. School shootings are a rare occurrence but for the people experiencing these events time stands still, and they will never forget. This paper will look at the reasons why these events take place, and the warning signs displayed by the shooters before the event happens. This paper will also explore what the media’s role in covering the shooting events, and the preventive measures that have been made over time to combat this issue that faces schools around the world.

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The number one issue that faces children today is bullying in school. It is not just the face to face type of bullying that is thought of when a person thinks of bullying. Today’s youth have to face cyber bullying along with the face to face bullying at school. Roland defines bullying as “continuing, negative behavior directed toward a victim by an individual or group” (2002). Another study calls the act of bullying marginalization. They define this as the act of pushing individuals outside the realm of social significance (Mongan, Hatcher and Maschi 2009). Yet another word associated with bullying that came from Mongan, Hatcher, and Maschi’s study is what is called masculinity attacks (2009). There study was conducted on the Columbine shooting. This is a statement from a survivor of that shooting describing what was said to the two young men that committed the shooting.

“Sure we teased them. But what do you expect with kids who come to school with weird hairdos and horns on their hats? It’s not just jocks; the whole school’s disgusted with them. They’re a bunch of homos…..If you want to get rid of someone; usually you tease ‘em. So the whole school would call them homos” (Gibbs & Roche, 1996, p.48).

Bullying would be a form of peer rejection. When a person is rejected by one group that they see as a positive, they may be pushed to another group that will have a negative influence or even resort to social isolation. Studies show that if a person has a strong attachment to family, peers, and school they are less likely to be an offender of delinquent acts (Curran and Renzetti 2001). They will see themselves as outcasts from the mainstream groups, and he or she will grow a large amount of animosity toward the group that bullied them. There has been some research conducted on the effects of bullying on school shooters, but bulling may be just a catalyst and not the main reason. Hann and Mays conducted a study and found that two thirds of all the offenders were bullied prior to the shooting incident (2013). Hann’s and Mays’s study does show a connection between bullying and school shooting, but also shows that the bully or bullies may not be the specific targets. They suggest that the stats show that bullies are the targets, but then go on to say that the shooters randomly target students in the school forgetting about the bullies (Hanns and Mays 2013). They may give more weight to the theory that bullying is more of a catalyst to the shooting than a main reason. Being bullied at school can lead to indicators or warning signs that a child may be going in the wrong direction. If the child becomes very isolated from social interactions this may be a warning sign that he or she may be having problems. Mongan, Hatcher, and Maschi show the stages that a person goes through before the final act of violence. They have come up with a model called the Stages of Change Model. This informative model shows people what to look for in regards to a child’s behavior. The table on the next page shows the different stages that a child may go through before committing the school shooting. This chart is to show school administrators and parents the warning signs to look for.

TABLE 1 Applying the Stages-of-Change Model to Youth At Risk of Committing a School Shooting

Stages of change      Identifying signs: Thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of at-risk youth

Stage 1      Precontemplation _ Has thoughts about planning or engaging in a school shooting

Stage 2      Contemplation _ Feels unfairly treated Has ‘‘grandiose’’ ideas of getting back at the school or others

Stage 3      Preparation _ Weighs the pros and cons of attempting a school shooting Has morbid fantasies of death Develops a plan of attack

Stage 4      Action _ Commits to follow through on plan_ Withdraws from others_ Obtains weapons for attack

Stage 5      Maintenance _ Establishes a plan and sets a date for the attack_ Spends time rehearsing plans (i.e., thinking about it or practicing)

Stage 6      Termination _ Feels attack is justified_ Completes the attack (murder and/or suicide) (p.639)

These warning signs are used to help prevent a possible shooting.

Other issues that may also push a child to delinquency or other crimes may include abuse in the home. If a child is already having a tough time at school, and then he or she goes to an abusive home life this will have a negative effect on the child. He or she may also have a personality disorders that have an effect on the delinquency, and this can often lead to suicide (Hann and Mays 2013). Violent movies and music have also been linked to violent behavior along with interest in firearms and bombs. Other psychological problems including depression, impulse control, or sadistic tendencies have been linked to school shooters (Hann and Mays 2013). Another argument that is being made is the accessibility of guns in the United States. Hann and Mays study points out that this is a major factor in the person’s ability to commit the act of a school shooting (2013). However, Mongan, Hatcher, and Maschi (2009) point out about the availability of guns in America that, “school shootings have also occurred in countries that employ strict gun control laws, and school shootings did not begin in America until 1966 even though there was a pro gun culture” (p637).

When these types of events take place people want to place the blame on someone or something to achieve closure. This is when the blame game starts and blame is pushed from one person or thing to another. According to Hann and Mays parents are often at least partially to blame for the shooting then followed by teachers and school administrators (2013). However, there is another source that many people place at least some blame too and that is the media.

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The media coverage of school shooting is very highly scrutinized among the victims and researchers alike. Some researchers put a lot of blame on the media for their coverage of these events. The people who make these claims seem to believe that the media’s coverage of these events cause “copy cat” school shooters. Hann and Mays point out that school shootings did not attract the media attention before 1997 as they do now (2013). The first major event that got the media coverage that Hann and Mays are speaking of is the Columbine shooting in 2001. It was the worst high school shooting of the time killing 12 students and one teacher and is believed by some to inspire others to commit similar crimes in different parts of the United States (Hann & Mays 2013).

A study was conducted by Haravuori, Suomalainen, Berg, Kivirousu, and Marttunen to see what impact the media coverage had on adolescents traumatized in a school shooting. This study was conducted on 231 students aged 13-19 years in Finland. A similar study was conducted on students at Virginia Tech after that shooting. There were three types of journalistic behavior experienced during the media coverage of both events. These behaviors included behaving badly, media mod, and displaying compassion. Both studies concluded that that being approached by the media and being interviewed had a negative effect on posttraumatic distress (2011).

Most media outlets would say that they were doing what the people want them to do and that is to report the news, and something as big as a school shooting would need to have extended coverage to get all that needs to be reported. They would also argue that they show great sympathy for the victims and their families. Where the issue lies for the researchers is when the extended coverage becomes too extended. Hann and Mays suggest that the media coverage prolongs the grief found in the communities that experience these tragedies (2013). What is meant by that statement is that the media prolongs the grieving process in that the people have to relive the event every time they step out their door or turn on the television. The researchers say that media needs to stick to just the facts of the situation and not over do the coverage with needless information. The entire how, why, and the target selected may spark another school shooting at another location according to the researchers.

The prevention of these types of crimes has to be combated early before the crime even happens. Parents, teachers, and school administrators need to see the warning signs early to prevent these types of crimes in their communities. The majority of the effort should be placed on prevention. According to Hann and Mays (2013), “In almost all shootings there were signs that the shooter or shooters might be preparing for this violent act. Over 90% of the shootings studied were planned at least 2 days ahead, and most of these shootings were discussed by the perpetrators via social media shortly before they occurred” (p.52). They also say that the media needs to tone back on the coverage of school shootings to help prevent other possible shootings (2013). Another possible prevention is schools suspension practices. If a child is suspended from school then that child may not have the proper supervision at home. If a child is already displaying warning signs of a possible delinquent then this type of punishment will only aggravate his or her already fragile condition (Hann & Mays 2013). Hann and Mann state that some school districts have created crisis management teams to deal with possible school shootings. Mongan, Hatcher, and Maschi conducted a nationwide survey in 2007 that concluded that, “6% of students had carried a weapon on school property” (p. 635). They suggest that the policies that schools have in place that deal with carrying weapon on their campus is not enough and that better measure need to be in place to help prevent and combat the issue of school violence. Schools need to provide workshops to educate on the stages of change model (Table 1) and how it applies to school violence, and instituting and formal referral process in the schools (Mongan, Hatcher,& Maschi 2009).

Almost all of the authors of articles that deal with school shooting do say that more steps need to be taken to prevent these acts of violence from happening. These authors contend that due to the violent nature of these crimes and the negative effect that it has on our society that stronger measures need to be implemented in our schools. School administrators and parents need to look for the warning signs that the child displays, and they need to have a reporting system in place that will handle the problem before it escalates. They also say that the media needs to scale its coverage back to limit the amount of time it takes for the community to heal. Media outlets need to be aware that they may inadvertently spark a copycat school shooting at another location with the extended coverage that is given to these types of events. A group that has studied school shootings has produced a chart that shows the different stages of progression that a possible school shooter may go through before committing the act. They suggest that schools have workshops for parents and teachers to help with seeing the warning signs before they get out of hand.


Curran, D.J., Renzetti, C.M. (2001) Theories of Crime (2nd ed). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Center for the Prevention of School Violence (2002, May). Just what is school violence: New brief. Retrieved November 21, 2008, from http://www.ncdjjdp.org/ cpsv/index.html

Center for Disease Control. (2008). Understanding school violence. Retrieved November 21, 2008, from http://cdc.gov/ncipc/dvp/YVP/SV_FactSheet.pdf

Gibbs, N., & Roche, T. (1999, December 20). The Columbine tapes: In five secret videos they recorded before the massacre, the killers reveal their hatreds-and their lust for fame. Time, 154(25), 40- 51.

Haan, P., & Mays, L. (2013). Children Killing Children: School Shootings in the United States. Social Work Review / Revista De Asistenta Sociala, (4), 49-55.

Mongan, P., Hatcher, S., & Maschi, T. (2009). Etiology of School Shootings: Utilizing a Purposive, Non-Impulsive Model for Social Work Practice. Journal Of Human Behavior In The Social Environment, 19(5), 635-645. doi:10.1080/10911350902910583

Reddy, M., Borum, R., Berglund, J., Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Modzeleski, W. (2011) Evaluating risk for targeted violence in schools: Comparing risk assessment, threat assessment, and other approaches. Psychology in the Schools, 38, 2, 157‑172.

Roland, E. (2002) Bullying, depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. Educational Research, 44, 55‑67.


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